The highlights were pretty high, the lows were real low, and the politics was whatever you individually made of it here during 2011.
In our annual poll of the year’s top news events, Mercury editors, reporters and photographers rendered a split decision that slightly favored K-State’s surprisingly strong 10-2 football season and Cotton Bowl bid as the year’s top story. Both it and the close runner-up, the shift in governing philosophy at City Hall brought about by April’s municipal election, had staying power, rendering outcomes that continued for several months.
In some ways, the dominant theme this year was criminality. There were four murders, in one of which the victim was a Manhattan High School freshman. The November arson of a large apartment complex under construction in the north redevelopment project set that effort back several months. And although they did not make our final list of 10, the armed robberies of three banks and a pharmacy in relatively quick succession in October and November merited attention.
For the third consecutive year, Wildcat Creek left its banks in June, forcing hundreds from their homes and causing millions of dollars in damage.
On the plus side, the area’s economy remained strong, with good retail sales figures throughout the year and a jobless rate that remained below 5 percent. The return of the last Fort Riley brigade fighting in Iraq was another plus, although that one came with an asterisk. Nearly two dozen soldiers base at the post died in combat either in Iraq or Afghanistan during the year, including six in one June attack in Iraq. That was the single most deadly day in the post’s combat experience in that region.
Here’s an item-by-item look at the year’s 10 biggest stories.
1. K-State football goes 10-2
The Wildcats were picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 this season. Few had K-State doing much at all. Yet in the end, the K-State football team supplied Wildcat fans with a season they won’t soon forget.
K-State finished the regular season with a 10-2 overall record and a 7-2 mark in the Big 12 to finish second, behind only Oklahoma State. The Wildcats also closed out the season with a final No. 8 ranking in the BCS standings and earned a spot in the Cotton Bowl to play No. 6 Arkansas on Jan. 6 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The Wildcats won 10 games for the first time since the 2003 season. And while the 10 wins was significant, the way K-State got those victories proved to be even more special, as the Wildcats won eight games by seven points or less, often requiring late-game heroics.
Junior quarterback Collin Klein led the Wildcats offensively with more than 1,700 passing yards and 12 touchdowns, while racking up another 1,099 yards and a school-record 26 TDs on the ground.
2. City Hall changeover
April represented a changing of the guard for the Manhattan City Commission. Bruce Snead, who served an unprecedented 16 years on the City Commission, Jayme Morris-Hardeman and Bob Strawn did not seek reelection, guaranteeing three newcomers to local office.
The candidates for the three seats in the April 5 election included: Phil Anderson, Wynn Butler, Stan Hoerman, Rich Jankovich and John Matta. Butler, Matta and Jankovich took the three open seats in the general election. The results marked a political shift in the Commission.
The former Commission was socially and fiscally liberal with Snead, Morris-Hardeman and Commissioner Jim Sherow out numbering Strawn and Commissioner Loren Pepperd. However, the three new commissioners ran on platforms of fiscal conservancy.
Despite a fiscally conservative focus, the new commissioners’ influence was immediately felt on social issues in the city. The Commission overturned legislation establishing an amendment to the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance adding sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes (see below), and also overturned a residential rental inspection program. They also agreed to withdraw the city from a compact with the county that had overseen the health department for decades.
3. Tyler Dowling murder
On April 13, the body of Tyler Dowling, 14, a freshman at Manhattan High School, was found in a field near Eisenhower Middle School, dead from apparent gunshot wounds. Immediately, RCPD detectives worked to piece together the homicide, speaking with the last reported person to see Dowling alive: Cole Drake, 14, a classmate of Dowling’s.
Though detectives said they did not treat Drake as a suspect in the beginning, police arrested the 14-year-old a day after Dowling’s body was found, following several interviews with detectives.
Drake, who is accused of first-degree murder, will make several court appearances in the coming months. His next hearing will determine whether he will be tried as a juvenile or an adult.
4. Strasser fire
On an early Sunday morning in November, a still unknown person or persons set fire to the under-construction Strasser Village Apartments on 4th and Leavenworth streets. The fire destroyed the unfinished apartment complex and resulted in the most devastating arson in Manhattan’s history.
Manhattan Fire Department investigators conducted the investigation into the cause of the fire with the assistance of the RCPD, the Kansas State Fire Marshal’s Office and the ATF. After a week of on-site surveying and witness interviews, ATF officials ruled the fire incendiary and said it originated in the northern section of the apartment complex.
Manhattan Fire Chief Jerry Snyder said the fire caused an estimated $2.7 million in damage to the apartments, and the damage to nearby businesses could exceed $2 million, resulting in the biggest dollar loss from arson in Manhattan’s history.
5. Gender ID ordinance repeal
Less than three months after the Manhattan City Commission approved an ordinance recognizing sexual orientation and gender identity in its non-discrimination statute, the new City Commission repealed the measure at its May 3 meeting.
The previous City Commission, consisting of current commissioner Loren Pepperd and Mayor Jim Sherow and former commissioners Jayme Morris-Hardeman, Bruce Snead and Bob Strawn, passed an amended ordinance on a split 3-2 vote during a Feb. 8 meeting.
The much-discussed, controversial ordinance added sexual orientation and gender identity to the city’s list of protected classes and created a local process through the Human Rights and Services Board (HRSB) to enforce the ordinance.
That ordinance protected those classes in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodation. It also established the HRSB as a quasi-judicial board with subpoena power and, if necessary, the authority to levy penalties.
Commissioners Wynn Butler and John Matta, with the support of Pepperd, successfully led an effort to repeal the ordinance. The three opposing commissioners cited the enforcement aspect of the ordinance, concerns from community members and unnecessary government regulation as the reasons for their opposition.
6. Wildcat Creek flood
An early June storm depositing as much as six inches of rain north of the city and two to three inches in the Wildcat Creek Basin itself overflowed Wildcat Creek June 2. The flood forced the evacuation of the Woodduck, Fairman, Highland Ridge, Connecticut, Red Bud and Garden Way areas as well as portions of Ogden. An estimated 200 persons were forced from their residences for at least a time that day.
Areas of the Plaza West shopping center were especially hard hit. The Valentino’s restaurant closed permanently due to storm damage, and Time Out Corner also closed for a time. Sam Samarrai, owner of the center, estimated the damage there alone in excess of $1 million, with more than a dozen businesses affected in that center alone.
It was the third successive year of flooding along Wildcat Creek. Emergency management director Pat Collins put the damage overall at in excess of $5 million.
7. Troop strength
With the return of a brigade from Iraq this fall, Fort Riley is at full strength, boasting a troop strength of more than 18,000 soldiers. The return of those soldiers is expected to be felt in communities in the Flint Hills region.
John Armbrust, executive director of Kansas Governor’s Military Council, said in October that the increase in population could raise concerns in childcare, housing, and schools. But he said it will “have minimal effect on us in the short term because we’ve already made the preparations.”
The return of troops from Iraqi combat was not without its melancholy aspects. During the calendar year, post units mourned the loss of more than 20 soldiers in combat, including a half dozen members of the 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery, 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team who died as a result of an attack in Baghdad in early June. It was the post’s highest single-day toll since combat in the Middle East began.
In 2011 alone, four murders were reported by the RCPD. The victims were Tyler Dowling, 14, Kevin Cockrum, 31, Ronald Taylor, 28, and Steve Freel, 31.
Though police are still searching for the man they believed murdered Ronald Taylor, a Fort Riley soldier, suspects were arrested in connection with the other murders: Cole Drake, 15 (see above), Justin Taylor, 24, and Michael Layne, 19.
Layne, charged with first degree murder, was a reported acquaintance of Freel, with whom police alleged he committed past armed robberies in Manhattan. Justin Taylor is charged with the second-degree murder of Cockrum, a former combat medic who was found beaten to death in an Aggieville alleyway in August.
The suspects will make court appearances in the coming months. While Justin Taylor’s trial is set to begin Jan. 31, Layne will appear for his preliminary hearing, which will determine whether he will be bound over for trial, in February.
Ronald Taylor was found in October after the wounded man crashed his auto near his home in Ogden. Authorities do not know whether he had been shot while driving, or whether he died trying to drive for help. His family has posted a $10,000 reward for information leading to the killer’s arrest and conviction.
9. Performance economy
The area’s economy churned steadily if unspectacularly through 2011, defying state and national downturns. Jobless rates in Manhattan ranged below 5 percent for much of the year — essentially a full-employment economy — while purchasing activity remained consistently strong.
An Associated Press “stress index” taken on several occasions during the year consistently rated Riley County among the 20 least economically stressed counties in the nation. The index looks at foreclosure rates, jobless rates and bankruptcy rates.
The influx of thousands of troops returning to Fort Riley from assignments overseas was generally cited as one factor boosting housing and purchasing activity here. Also cited was the area’s concentration on higher education, a field often viewed as growing through harder times. General population growth also played a role; the federal census showed that the county added more than 8,000 residents in the decade between 2000 and 2010.
10. Big 12 goes through more changes
Texas A&M departed from the Big 12, Oklahoma threatened to leave and commissioner Dan Beebe resigned. Needless to say, things were more than shaky for the second straight year in the conference as the league looked to be on the verge of completely falling apart.
K-State was among the schools not wooed by any of the major conferences, for a time leaving uncertainty regarding the future of its affiliation.
But the Big 12 once again held together, despite Missouri joining the Aggies in the SEC. The league added TCU and West Virginia to get back to 10 teams, and the remaining schools granted their TV rights to the conference, all of which provided some much-needed stability.